Recently, I’ve taken a step back in my own training. Aside from one day a week deadlifting with a barbell in the gym, I spend the remainder of my workouts outside in the backyard training with only my bodyweight. I’m doing this because I really enjoy the world of calisthenics. Some of the planche variations and handstand concepts are just way too cool to pass up!
But what has shaken out of the mix is really a renewed respect for two of the most basic exercises – the push up and the pull up. Humble as they may be, these movements have a lot to offer you. And simply put, if you can’t preform a series of stellar push ups and follow up with several awesome pull ups (no swinging!) then what business do you have lifting weights in the gym?!
So, this week I want to argue in defense of the simple push up and pull up. If you’re stuck in a plateau in the gym or if you’ve grown bored with the iron jungle at your big box gym, maybe you too could benefit from taking a step back and working on the basics.
Let’s get to work. Here are 2 exercises you need to master before you even think about approaching a barbell.
The pull up
What’s the biggest mistake I see when people do a pull up in the gym? It’s range of motion (ROM).
Very few of us will extend our arms to a near lock out position. This is for (2) reasons. Firstly, it’s hard! We aren’t able to apply a lot of torque when our arm is extended like we are when our arm is more flexed. Secondly, almost every workout program out there is repetition based. Many of you may be approaching the pull up bar with the goal of 3 sets of 10. And whether you are aware of it or not, you may be making all sorts of small compensations to help you hit that 10th rep. Shortening your ROM, swinging a bit, kipping the knees, not quite putting your chin over the bar, etc.
Indeed, there is a time and a place for counting your reps, but don’t underestimate the power of skill training.
And it’s this concept of skill training that is really the essence of this blog post.
That we can take (2) absolutely elementary exercises and transform them into very challenging movements merely by giving them the respect they deserve!
Now, I’m not going to go over proper pull up technique in this post because I think you probably have a good handle on that. Instead, let me offer up a couple pieces of advice that I think may be a little new to you. And they both reflect back on my favorite topic – tension :).
1. Minimize movement
Obviously, you’re going to move. You’re going to visualize yourself pulling the bar towards you and flex your arms, thereby allowing your chin to pass above the bar. But that’s the only part of you that should be moving. Your legs shouldn’t be doing anything. Maybe you like to cross one over the other and bend at the knees. Maybe you keep them straight. Or, perhaps you are already a pull up master (thanks for reading anyway!) and you choose to extend them out in front of you like in an L-sit. No matter where you put them, keep them there! Your legs shouldn’t be swinging left or right or forward or backward. They should remain completely static. Just along for the ride, that’s all.
2. Get comfortable
Here’s something to try the next time you approach the pull up bar. First, let go of any notion of how many reps you want to complete. Instead, hop up and grab the bar and then tighten up with your left grip and hang from that one arm. Your legs can drift over to the left a bit and you can extend your right arm straight out to the side to help balance in your new position. Now just relax and stay in this position for a few seconds. When you’re ready, reach up and switch arms.
Now you can do your pull ups. You’ll probably be preforming fewer reps than usual due to the added time under tension of your 1-arm hangs, but that’s OK because you’re learning to be comfortable in this position. Before you know it, you’ll be able to play around and hang from different arms for a couple of minutes at a time!
Both of these tips are really proprioception techniques that you may want to consider. They are reminders that sometimes we need to look inward and work on building up our sense of body awareness as much as we do our muscle size and strength.
Working up towards achieving a new PR on one of the big (3) lifts is fun and all, but don’t lose respect for the concept of work capacity. So what if you can bench 3 plates? Can you knock out 50 push ups in a row? That’s the difference between explosive strength and work capacity.
The push up
I’ve written before on the push up and to be quite honest, I will continue to do so again and again. Why? Because the push up is one of the basics, it will never go out of style! And you don’t even need a gym membership.
Similar to the pull up, I’m assuming you know how to do a push up just fine. So, once again, allow me to offer up (2) tips that I hope will help you to look at the humble push up in a new light.
1. Stay tight
A push up is a full body exercise. Problem is, most people don’t fully appreciate this fact. Instead, they just want to knock out a couple of sets of 10 and move on. And by doing so, they miss out on a great opportunity to build a rock solid core and hone their pushing movement.
Next time you set up to do a push up, focus on keeping your entire body tight. I mean really tight. Brace your core, squeeze your glutes, keep the quads activated and grip the floor like you mean it! Now, lower yourself down and press back up keeping your elbows close to your sides. By keeping your elbows in close you’re making it easier to activate your lats, thereby keeping your upper body locked up.
The whole reason we want to do this is so that we have a nice solid mass from which to push against. This boosts your efficiency which allows you to do more work which in turn helps you to grow muscle and build strength.
2. Get springy
For times when you’re aiming to perform a series of push ups, be cognizant of your body’s natural stretch shortening cycle – that is, your body’s natural tendency to store energy like a spring. This doesn’t mean that you’re doing your push ups any faster than normal, but it does mean that you’re progressing through your series with a nice fluid technique. You’re not really pausing at the bottom, but instead, flowing like you had a metronome right by your side.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes you may want to pause at the bottom and sometimes maybe you want to have some fun with the tempo. But before you begin dabbling with these other techniques, I think it’s important for you to really get a good flow established and work on enhancing your body’s efficiency with pressing movements. And by staying super tight in your body mass and leveraging your body’s natural energy storing capacity, you may just unlock some strength you never thought you had.
The key takeaway
So what do we have here? We have (2) exercises – one a push and the other, a pull movement. Both loaded at bodyweight. Neither requires you to have a gym membership. At the very least all you need to do is walk to the nearest park and find (1.) somewhere flat and (2.) somewhere to hang from.
Sometimes the way that we can best succeed in our fitness is to turn around and take a step forward.
So, give the push up and pull up a second chance. When you go to the gym this week, maybe it’s worth it to you to try something new and focus exclusively (or almost exclusively) on bodyweight movements. By spending a few weeks mastering these basic movements you may end up shoring up some of your weak points. Then when you hit the bench press and bent over rows again, you just may find that you’ve busted through your plateaus.
One last thought to leave you with: the concept of an exercise continuum. The idea that one exercise feeds into another; you build on your strengths and movement capacities before ‘graduating’ to another movement. For instance, babies can’t cheat mother nature. If they try walking before they have the stability to stand in place, they will topple over. There’s no cheating. But as adults, we have a lot of machines in the gym that we use to do just that! Don’t know how to squat? No problem, try using the leg press machine. Want to pull lots of weight for (2) reps on the lat pulldown machine, go for it! We can leap frog past the basic movements of a squat and pull up, but we do so at a risk of putting fitness on dysfunction.
Identify your weakness, attack them with purpose and smart program design, then build some serious strength. Your body will thank you in your years to come.
Happy lifting everyone.
By Ryan Wagner
What are your thoughts on the push up and pull up? Are they currently a part of your workout program?
Need a refresher on the venerable push up? It doesn’t get much better than this tutorial from the folks over at Gold Medal Bodies.
Need help on your first pull up? Here’s a great article.
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